Holistic Security & How We Got Here

by Hannah Smith

Posted: 11.08.2016

Tactical Tech has been training human rights defenders in digital security since 2006 and published Security in-a-Box together with our colleagues at Front Line Defenders in 2008. So how did we get here? Why is the Holistic Security Manual is not another toolkit? And what's its connection to Security in a Box?

Working in the field of digital security is both somewhat simple and massively complex in equal measure. On the simple side, digital security lends itself to technical 'solutions'. No one tool will fix everything, and threat models vary greatly depending on contextual factors. But if used correctly, a small selection of tools and tactics can offer significant protection against a host of digital threats faced by human rights defenders around the world.

On the complex side, tools change, recommendations can be contradictory and human error is a major factor. Further, effectively teaching digital security is a monumentally challenging task. As shown in our recent research, if it is not taught in the context of real-life scenarios and workflows, within teams or networks, and while providing ongoing support, uptake can be dismal. Add to that, that training is resource heavy and defenders rarely arrive at trainings in a optimal position to learn (either because of external distractions, ill health on account of stress, or a multitude of other possible factors) and it can be an uphill struggle to say the least. And all this while focusing only on digital security.

Too often, we saw (and were party to) the artificial separation of different aspects of human rights defenders' safety. This had a number of negative impacts which were recognised by both trainers and participants. As discussed in an early article, Rethinking Risk and Security of Human Rights Defenders in the Digital Age, the need for an integrated and holistic approach to security had become self-evident.

Towards a holistic approach to security

First seeded in informal conversations between trainers who felt under-equipped in their work, and by concerns from human rights defenders about how different trainers or trainings would inadvertently contradict each other, dismiss one another, or increase the perceived difficulty of a topic that was not their subject area, the idea to try and develop a holistic approach to security formed.

At a gathering of trainers in early 2013, bringing together experts from the three core fields within protection for human rights defenders – physical security, digital security and psycho-social well-being – Craig Higson Smith raised a question which became mantra-like in the later stages of the project:

“What's the minimum that I need to know about your job, so that I can do my job better?”

Over the course of three years, we gathered a collective of security and strategy trainers, human rights defenders and practitioners for three multi-day workshops (and countless interim writing sprints) to answer this question. They worked collaboratively to apply existing learnings from their own fields to the problems faced in others, and to design new approaches together.

As such, the manual draws heavily on the established concepts and practices already detailed in a number of existing resources, including Protection International's New Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders' Workbook on Security for Human Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders and Tactical Tech's Security in-a-Box and Kvinna till Kvinna's Integrated Security Manual. While this means some repetition, we felt it important to create a single, comprehensive resource for defenders, as well as to clearly define when and why holistic security departs from the existing orthodoxy.

Forming the manual

The final output of the project is the Holistic Security Manual; a self-guided learning resource for human rights defenders, wherein individuals and groups can self-direct a path towards holistic security practice. Despite beginning as a problem-solving exercise between trainers, we deemed it crucial to provide a resource for defenders which would not be dependent on external training and expertise, given the limited access to such opportunities experienced by so many.

However, rather than developing a traditional solution-orientated ‘toolkit’ like Security in-a-Box, the approach we took was that of a strategy manual, i.e. a resource with the primary purpose of coaching defenders through the process of analysing and developing responses to their individual situations, rather than seeking provide all the answers. What this means is that Sections 1-3 of the manual (Prepare, Explore and Strategise) focus on creating a framework for analysing and responding to threats. However they do not provide concrete tactics for dealing with specific threats.

Section 4 | Act closes the circle, providing a selection action-orientated 'tools' or 'tactics' for certain common yet high-risk situations. The topics for the Act mini-guides - the first of which is Protest - have been chosen on the basis of being both frequently experienced by defenders, and because the tactics which can be recommended are less context dependent and highly unlikely to cause harm.

Our greatest concern was to avoid providing any potentially misleading ‘easy solutions’ that would fail to acknowledge the need for context analysis and might in the worst instances do more harm than good. This is not to diminish the utility of the toolkit approach - some fantastic examples already exist which offer concrete tactics for specific threats.

But while we hope to develop further mini-guides within Act for other commonly occurring, high-risk activities, these will remain a drop in the ocean. There are no 'apt-get install' solutions when considering the myriad of threats faced by human rights defenders worldwide. Instead, equipping defenders with the right 'tools' means helping them learn to analyse their situations and develop effective responses independently.


And speaking also to that initial question, “What's the minimum that I need to know about your job, so that I can do my job better?”...the Holistic Security Manual will soon be accompanied by a Trainers' Manual which was developed in parallel and offers further learnings and best practices, tailored for the training community. Watch this space!